Saturday, August 8, 2015

No. 39 Dave Gibbons

First Prog: 1
Final Prog: (as strip artist) 310; (as writer) 687; (as cover artist) 1387

Total appearances: 210

Creator credits:
The Harlem Heroes*; Rogue Trooper; the War Machine

Other art credits:
Dan Dare
ABC Warriors
Judge Dredd
Various seminal one-offs

Notable character creations:

John ‘Giant’ Clay
Artie Gruber – one of 2000 AD’s best –designed villains, fondly remembered despite a handful of actual appearences
Charlie, hero of Northpool
-and, to a certain extent, the Terra-Meks that fought him
Rogue Trooper and his biochips
Norts and Southers of various flavours
Nu-Earth, a planet that is itself a character
Fr1day, the re-booted Rogue Trooper

Notable characteristics:
Fluid action, well defined backgrounds, clear expressions, fantastically clear storytelling

On Dave:
Once upon a time, Dave Gibbons would have been the number 1 artist on this prog-tallying exercise. He had work in practically every single issue for the first 3 years of 2000 AD, then pausing only to bang out the first and definitive episodes of Rogue Trooper, along with a handful of some of the best-loved short stories of all time.

It’s not at all surprising that a talent as prodigious as his found higher paid work in America, where he became one of the first 2000 AD artists to show up his contemporaries by doing superheroes better than anyone else since Jack Kirby**.

As if to prove his talent, when he came back for a brief run in the Prog some years later, it was as a writer, not an artist (although we did get this tantalizing sketch).

But let’s begin again at the beginning: Harlem Heroes. This was a sports story that was notable a) for being about a sport that never quite made any sense and b) for having an all-black cast. More to the point, each character had his own look and personality, so lots of bonus PC points right off the bat, although you get the distinct impression they were mostly interested in telling an OTT violent sports story than in scoring PC points. The Harlem Heroes themselves made for engaging characters, but the real draw was Gibbons’s dynamic art, showing the team flying, punching and above all kicking their way to glory. Having the opposing teams decked up in all manner of crazy (and terrifically un-PC) gear was a side bonus. 

Kick to the face!

Colourful teams!

For a sport that makes no sense, you can really feel the
joy of scoring a goal.
All words by Tom Tully

 Along the way, Gibbons dreamed up crazed cyborg revenge-fixated villain Artie Gruber. Everybody loves Artie Gruber (except perhaps Tharg, who hasn’t seen fit to bring the iconic villain back nearly often enough).

Gibbons soon swapped duties with fellow artist Massimo Belardinelli. The Italian put the Harlem Heroes on Motorbikes in Inferno, while the Englishman moved Dan Dare out of his glam rock future into a sort of blue collar Star Trek setting. Gibbons’s Dare was part James T Kirk and part Han Solo. His crew included Hitman, a man with a gun built into one of his hands, and Bear, a large Russian. Ah, the subtleties of early 2000 AD.

Raw emotion; palpable outrage
Words by Chris Lowder

Pilot's gonna get wormed...
Words by Chris Lowder

The first page of each Dare episode was on the cover for a while.
Words by Gerry Finley-Day
Gibbons made it work week in and week out for nearly two years, before the strip changed direction again, into more of a classic space adventure romp, with aliens aplenty, femmes fatale ( and something called the cosmic claw. I’ve barely read any original Dan Dare so I’ve no idea how it all compares.

Dare hung out with some rad-looking aliens, I'll give him that.
Words by Tom Tully

 In between bouts on Dan Dare, Gibbons teamed up with Pat Mills to create two famously tear-jerking, and indeed deeply political stories. The Ro-Busters found themselves sidelined as they watched a tussle between corporate greed and small-town hardship in the Terra-Meks. Mills and Gibbons wring every last tear out of the readership as run-down hero Charlie saves Northpool, and the adoring townsfolk sing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. It’s like the John Williams score to a Steven Spielberg film – deeply unsubtle, absolutely effective.

Who's more evil? The man with his brain in a robot body, or the man with the pencil moustache?
Words by Pat Mills

Mek-Quake looks so hurt! Poor bastard.
Words by Pat Mills

Over in Ro-Busters spin-off ABC Warriors, Gibbons provided a single story, Cyboons, but once again it provided tears and politics, this time of a ‘colonists vs natives’ bent. Also the hilarious sight of an apeman groomed up as a 1950s swinger.

Hilarious, horrific, poignant and even political all in three panels.
Words by Pat Mills
Gibbons livened up a handful of twist in the tale offerings, most famously this one about a mayor who was also a robot who was also a wolfman, or something. I forget. Looks cool, though. 

Didn't see that coming.
Words by Gary Rice

But in the end, after helping lay the groundwork for 2000 AD as the best comic going  - a platform without which it would never have survived the death of newsprint comics in the mid-80s – Gibbons made his most lasting mark with Rogue Trooper. As detailed in Thrill-Power Overload**, Gibbons played a pretty huge part in helping to work out the basic set-up of the story, setting and characters. Super iconic stuff, from the constant black-hole visible in the Nu Earth skyline, to the truly horrific scenes of soldiers choking to death on the poison-filled atmosphere, to the simple, stark image of Rogue striding alone across battlefields, plagues by the memories of his fallen comrades.

Prog 241: a serious contender for best cover of all time

Choking down on gas: the worst way to die?
Gargle by Gerry Finley-Day

Using moody silhouettes to make a point
Words by Gerry Finley-Day
It’s no coincidence that Gibbons’s Rogue Trooper stories are the most emotional, the ones that really ram home the continued message about the horrors of war, and what it does to the people who fight them.

Interestingly, this was one angle almost entirely absent from Gibbons’s later re-working of Rogue Trooper, for his story the War Machine. The first of a glut of reboots (before the word ‘reboot’ even existed, as far as I know), this was one of the best. 
Art by Gibbons from a house ad. Kind of sums it up!

Being uncharitable, you could point to Gibbons the writer trading on the then-popular style of short-burst caption narration, a la Frank Miller in Wolverine, Dark Knight Returns and Sin City. The strip wears its themes on its sleeves so openly it’s kind of easy to mock – but this ignores the simpler truth that it’s actually a very successful war story that has, so far, stood the test of time.

Captions make comics
more serious.
Art by Will Simpson

While it probably wasn’t necessary to try to make the silliness of Helm, Gunnar and Bagman seem more realistic, it does work to show the GIs in training, and then going through the grim paces of soldiering as, functionally, brainwashed 12 year-old boys in the bodies of 20 year-old men. It also makes pretty simple but no less powerful observations about war as a tactic used by the rich and powerful to get richer and more powerful. The original Rogue Trooper, every now and then, touched upon the horrors of war, but always within the remit of being an action comic. Gibbons’s War Machine follows the classic cinematic axiom of remakes: be more realistic, be grittier. In some ways, it made the story less fun; in other ways, it resonated harder.

It’s also, not surprisingly, an act of scripting that allowed artist Will Simpson to breathe his own life into. His style couldn’t be further from Gibbons’s, but he works beautifully to make Gibbons’s point – war is hell.

Letting the artist do his thing with the gore and boredom of war.
Painting by Will Simpson

And then he was gone. Gone, but never forgotten.

If Gibbons dies soon this'll look really tasteless.

More on Dave Gibbons
Lew Stringer on Gibbons, with embedded video interview here.
You can read the first epsiode of Rogue Trooper here.
And don’t forget, Gibbons’s work on Dan Dare is finally getting a reprint later this year!

Personal favourites:
Harlem Heroes
Dan Dare:  in all honesty, I haven’t re-read any of these in so long I’d hesitate to pick one out, but the art is great
Ro-Busters: Murder on the Orient Express, the Terra-Meks
ABC Warriors: Cyboons
Judge Dredd: Mob Blitzers (his only episode, but who doesn’t love Lips Lazarus?)
Rogue Trooper: all of Gibbons’ run is gold standard stuff

*This is a little complicated – another artist actually drew the first episode of Harlem Heroes, but was replaced quite early on by Gibbons, whose work is seen in most of the actual printed first episode. So it’s likely the costume and maybe character design was already in place before Gibbons came on board. But the general tone and world-building of the series has Gibbons’s stamp all over it.

**Obviously there are many other contenders for this claim, but none of them drew Watchmen, the definitive Superhero text of the modern age.

***I haven’t mentioned this book for ages. I can’t stress how great it is, and how much you should be reading that if you’re at all enjoying reading this.

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